Yuval Noah Harari’s History of Everyone, Ever
For a historian to be profiled in a 10,000 word article in the New Yorker, which is arguably the world’s best magazine, he/she has to be pretty special. Most people who have read Yuval Noah Harari’s books will argue that he is pretty special. This profile tells you more about this unique man.
The piece first gives you the backstory behind Harari’s global bestseller “Sapiens”, the sort of book which you read once and remember for the rest of your life: “In 2008, Yuval Noah Harari, a young historian at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem, began to write a book derived from an undergraduate world-history class that he was teaching. Twenty lectures became twenty chapters. Harari, who had previously written about aspects of medieval and early-modern warfare—but whose intellectual appetite, since childhood, had been for all-encompassing accounts of the world—wrote in plain, short sentences that displayed no anxiety about the academic decorum of a study spanning hundreds of thousands of years. It was a history of everyone, ever. The book, published in Hebrew as “A Brief History of Humankind,” became an Israeli best-seller; then, as “Sapiens,” it became an international one. Readers were offered the vertiginous pleasure of acquiring apparent mastery of all human affairs—evolution, agriculture, economics—while watching their personal narratives, even their national narratives, shrink to a point of invisibility. President Barack Obama, speaking to CNN in 2016, compared the book to a visit he’d made to the pyramids of Giza.”
In the decade following Sapiens, Harari published two other well received books (one of which deprived our book “Coffee Can Investing” of the “2018 Book of Year” prize from Amazon.in): “Harari…has spent the years since the publication of “Sapiens” in conversations about this cliffhanger. His two subsequent best-sellers—“Homo Deus” (2017) and “21 Lessons for the 21st Century” (2018)—focus on the present and the near future. Harari now defines himself as both a historian and a philosopher. He dwells particularly on the possibility that biometric monitoring, coupled with advanced computing, will give corporations and governments access to more complete data about people—about their desires and liabilities—than people have about themselves. A life under such scrutiny, he said recently, is liable to become “one long, stressing job interview.”
Harari’s fame, lifestyle and income are now commensurate to that of a rockstar. The New Yorker gives mortals like us glimpses into the life of this extraordinary man: “…when speaking at conferences where C.E.O.s meet public intellectuals, or visiting Mark Zuckerberg’s Palo Alto house, or the Élysée Palace, in Paris, he’ll put a long finger to his chin and quietly answer questions about Neanderthals, self-driving cars, and the series finale of “Game of Thrones.” Harari’s publishing and speaking interests now occupy a staff of twelve, who work out of a sunny office in Tel Aviv, where an employee from Peru cooks everyone vegan lunches. Here, one can learn details of a scheduled graphic novel of “Sapiens”—a cartoon version of Harari, wearing wire-framed glasses and looking a little balder than in life, pops up here and there, across time and space. There are also plans for a “Sapiens” children’s book, and a multi-season “Sapiens”-inspired TV drama, covering sixty thousand years, with a script by the co-writer of Mel Gibson’s “Apocalypto.”
Harari seldom goes to this office. He works at the home he shares with Itzik Yahav, his husband, who is also his agent and manager. They live in a village of expensive modern houses, half an hour inland from Tel Aviv, at a spot where Israel’s coastal plain is first interrupted by hills. The location gives a view of half the country and, hazily, the Mediterranean beyond. Below the house are the ruins of the once mighty Canaanite city of Gezer; Harari and Yahav walk their dog there. Their swimming pool is blob-shaped and, at night, lit a vivid mauve… Asked to consider his husband’s current place in world affairs, Yahav estimated that Harari was “between Madonna and Steven Pinker.””
If there is a problem with Harari’s work, it is this: Harari is long on bold predictions (eg. “Those who will control the world in the twenty-first century are those who will control data.” He also said that Homo sapiens would likely disappear, in a tech-driven upgrade.”) but short on what can be practically done to make things better (eg. “Harari has the ear of decision-makers; he travels the world to show them PowerPoint slides depicting mountains of trash and unemployed hordes. But, like a fiery street preacher unable to recommend one faith over another, he concludes with a policy shrug. Harari emphasizes that the public should press politicians to respond to tech threats, but when I asked what that response should be he said, “I don’t know what the answer is. I don’t think it will come from me. Even if I took three years off, and just immersed myself in some cave of books and meditation, I don’t think I would emerge with the answer.””) But therein lies the appeal of the man – in a world littered with jingoistic politicians touting easy solutions to complex problems, here is a pop intellectual saying that perhaps most of our problems don’t have any solutions.